I pulled out the films, made some calls, put his scout hat on and came up with this breakdown of the four teams in the Frozen Four:
North Dakota scouting report
Interesting team in that most of the season people said there are three tiers in the WCHA. There are the lower teams, the good teams, and then there is North Dakota. Some have even said North Dakota could play in the AHL right about now. They have some experience in terms of a sprinkling of 23- and 24-year-old players (Chay Genoway, Brett Hextall, Jake Marto) but their experience lies more in their upperclassmen — six key guys being seniors and four juniors. Size, better-than-average speed, good skill, tremendous tenacity and good coaching are the hallmarks of the Fighting Sioux.
The Sioux have quality wins all over their schedule, including sweeps of Bemidji State and Wisconsin on the road and wins over Denver, Minnesota-Duluth, Nebraska-Omaha, Notre Dame and Colorado College. They enter the Frozen Four on a 14-0-1 run, and a couple of NHL scouts told me that their first period against CC in the WCHA Final Five might have been as good a 20 minutes as any college team has played this season.
They have great size down the middle in Corban Knight, Brad Malone, Carter Rowney and Brock Nelson, though Nelson still needs to bulk up a bit prior to pro hockey. They also have a big defense that is agile, mobile and hostile, so down-low play against them in the offensive zone has not been an area where opponents have been tremendously successful.
The Sioux have somewhat of a neighborhood bully mentality to them: They will hit you and hit you all game and will not stop the assault until they start to get hit back, at which point you can get them to settle into a game. They do like to play on the edge because they really believe in their ability to kill penalties and did so at an 86 percent clip this season and are 26-for-28 in the postseason. They’ll take a penalty to send a message.
They can play any style of game you want to play against them, which is what makes them so dangerous. I have heard the 1980-83 Islanders mentioned in comparison, and that was a team that can play physical, play finesse, play firewagon style — however you want to play, they’ll play your way and win.
Their transition game is really a strength, and watching them pass you can tell this is a team that spends time on its fundamentals in practice. Tic-tac-toe passing is impressive, and that is what makes them a threat when they get turnovers so opponents need to manage the puck against them. When they get it, they go. It reminds some of the Minnesota teams of the early 2000s.
They can push the pace of a game, and because of the size and agility of their defense, they are very good at the concept of one-and-done defense. You go to cycle and they bust it with a quick hit and recoup the puck. You come at them on the rush and they stand up aggressively and take out the puck carrier and eliminate his options. Inside the zone they are tough to get inside of; their big bodies and strong sticks are noticeable for the right reasons. They are a team that doesn’t spend a ton of time skating backwards even when it doesn’t have the puck and it is one of those teams that is not content to sit back and get it back if you make a mistake; rather, they go and get it back.
Hobey Hat Trick finalist Matt Frattin leads the charge, and there are many who feel he is the most NHL-ready player in St. Paul. As one scout said, “He reminds me a little of Brett Hull with his quick release and heavy shot.” He has a missile of a shot and loves to use it. His size, strength and hockey IQ make him tough to slow down.
Malone centers Evan Trupp and Frattin, and he is one of those big, strong centermen who is just a buzz saw down low. His tenacity and energy keep the jam going both in his own end and especially in the offensive end. Many see him as your prototypical No. 3 and or No. 4 NHL center now. He is hard to play against and has no problems letting you know he is in your area.
The goaltending has been solid, and there is no reason to suspect it fails them. Their defensive corps is OK offensively but they create a ton of offense by not letting pucks get deep on them with regularity.
It is the kind of team that coaches say doesn’t intimidate you as you play it, but you realize as the game is going on how ruthlessly efficient it is and how much intensity it has. To beat them you have to keep turnovers down, be physical, and continue to get to the net for pucks because they don’t allow a ton of them to be carried there. You had better be prepared to match their compete level.
They’re aggressive on the forecheck, and there is not a lot of standing around and waiting for breakouts. As one scout said, this is not a team that skates backward a whole lot. One of the things to watch is Genoway. In an interesting observation, it was pointed out to me by someone who sees a lot of North Dakota that when he plays 22 minutes a night he could be the best defenseman in the country. When he has to play 26-28 he is far less effective. That could be worth keeping an eye if North Dakota is trailing, because it will want to get him on the ice as often as possible.
Overall, North Dakota probably presents the most balanced team at the Frozen Four. The question mark could be goaltender Aaron Dell, who has had a few leakers this season but overall has been very good. They have good speed, which can cause teams to take a lot of stick and hand penalties against them, and they are good at getting teams off their game. Discipline is vital playing against them. Getting pucks deep against Genoway is going to be something Michigan should probably do; he’d be one guy back there along with Derek Forbort that could get worn down with a consistent physical pounding.
Michigan scouting report
A nice blend of speed, skill, and character define the Wolverines. However, injuries are an issue as they lost David Wohlberg and Brandon Burlon late in the season and each is a key contributor in his own way. Wohlberg has nice playmaking skills and good speed but more importantly he is dependable in all three zones away from the puck and is a good leader.
Burlon is among the best in the nation at pushing the pace from the back line. He gets into the play, creates breakout options and snaps passes quickly and accurately. I hear scouts say he can’t do this and can’t do that, but my looks at him say he can do a lot and makes an impact on games he plays for the right reasons. Michigan will miss his big, accurate shot and also his size in the defensive zone. He could play, but he has lost some weight due to an illness recently and might not be the Burlon who the Wolverines count on for big minutes.
Goal is either a question mark or a huge strength. Shawn Hunwick is pretty darn good and has answered every bell rung before him. You can make a case he is the most clutch goalie of the four in the tourney and has long since answered the question of whether he can play in the spotlight. He is a small goalie who could have trouble with the size North Dakota brings to the slot, but what Hunwick brings is pretty reliable crease management. Rebounds are usually not dangerous with him and he is quick in terms of getting around the crease; what he lacks in size he makes up for in speed, agility, and athleticism.
Michigan is smallish down the middle. It has some size on the wings that can get in and bang, but this is not where Michigan will intimidate you. Chris Brown is 6-foot-2, 195 pounds and demonstrated at the World Junior Championship and in the CCHA that he can be a menacing player when he wants to be and also can score. Luke Glendenning and Scooter Vaughan can also get on a defenseman pretty quickly and cause havoc, but Michigan is a rush-based team more than a chip and chase. They can be physical but are not a team you see pound teams into oblivion. They cycle well, win a lot of battles and get pucks to scoring areas quickly. Most of all, they are smart in the offensive zone, know how to hit soft spots and are good with their fundamental puck skills.
They are more a skill-and-speed team and this is where they are dangerous. They are one of the best in the nation at shortening the rink and transitioning quickly. Their defense, especially Jon Merrill and Chad Langlais (who have been a pair all season), get pucks quickly and move them just as fast up ice. Michigan is a great regroup team and its skill on defense is a big reason.
The top two lines are good, though they have changed quite a bit. Normally, Matt Rust centers Carl Hagelin on the left and they have had Brown, Kevin Lynch and a couple of others on their right. Rust is perfect for Hagelin because he is one of the few in college hockey that can keep up with his speed and play at the same pace Hagelin does. Rust is so good defensively, though, and takes great pride in it so he now has moved to the 1A line and Louie Caporusso takes over the top spot.
Michigan normally is a team that starts 100 mph but if it doesn’t find the net early could flat line for a while. With their balance and their leadership this season, the Wolverines have been much more consistent and two-goal deficits have not been an issue. They have a good power play quarterbacked by Merrill and Langlais, and on the PK you had better be careful because they are as dangerous offensively short-handed as they are five-on-five, and Rust might be the best PK guy in the nation.
They’re a good faceoff team, disciplined in this area, and get a lot of secondary wins off scrambles. Vaughan has been terrific lately; Caporusso has found some consistency and is playing better away from the puck offensively. Langlais is the Wolverines’ answer to Genoway, but he is also undersized and could have a big bull’s-eye on him if North Dakota wants to wear down the Michigan defense. Does Michigan play him and Merrill against Malone’s line or save them for Greg Pateryn, who is the big man on the back line along with Kevin Clare?
Overall, Michigan has speed, skill, finesse, and a great work ethic. It plays as a team but it can be chirpy and when it runs into Hockey East or ECAC officiating crews who might not let them get mouthy, it will be interesting to see how that affects their game. The other item here on that note is that the CCHA officials call games pretty close whereas the Eastern crews can be a little more lenient. Each team will see calls or non-calls that differ from what they are used to. Michigan and North Dakota both have great speed, and speed causes penalties. Michigan has taken a lot more uncharacteristic trips, holds, and roughs this season than I’ve seen in recent years and North Dakota loves to play it on the edge. Special teams could be more of a factor than one might think.
Notre Dame scouting report
I have said to many observers that Notre Dame could remind you of the old Red Army teams of the Soviet Union but with emotion. Under Jeff Jackson you have seen a team that plays a system where there is low risk, high intensity and a focus on doing the winning things. It is obvious that Jackson’s guys have bought in because a young team like theirs could have been exposed by a couple of veteran teams in the playoffs, but the Irish stuck with it and continued their roll to the Frozen Four.
You watch Notre Dame and the first thing you want to say is whatever the strength and conditioning coach is getting paid isn’t enough. Assistant coach Andy Slaggert is a master recruiter. He went out and found a big corps of defensemen who have physically matured this season into brick walls. It is unique to watch Notre Dame play small teams — they can’t get inside and to the net, as evidenced by the win over New Hampshire in Manchester. You watch them play bigger teams like Lake Superior State or Merrimack and you see how their angles, positioning, gap control and stick skills can take over a game along with that size and strength. Give credit to coach Paul Pooley here as well.
Kevin Lind goes 6-foot-3, 215 pounds; Shayne Taker is 6-4, 190; Stephen Johns is 6-2, 215; and Joe Lavin, known more for his offense, is a solid 6-1, 200. These guys win a lot of one-on-one battles and are very good on the walls and in the corners. Their stick skills at the net front are really good and they don’t take a lot of penalties when they engage in stick-on-stick battles or physical ones.
Their defensemen might not remind anyone of Brian Leetch, but they can get shots through and present a threat with the puck from the point. Unlike a Brett Lebda or an Ian Cole, they don’t have the horse on the back line that can go with the puck, but Lavin does a nice job here and Sam Calabrese can also wheel with the biscuit and create offense off the breakout.
They have depth up front between youth and vets, and Ryan Guentzel has been a big cog as a senior leader. His transformation from role player to prime time player has been impressive and his playmaking skills are as underrated as they come. Calle Ridderwall has been more offensive at times in his career but his 15 goals are noteworthy. Ridderwall has done well in his career overcoming fear of high traffic and tough areas. He’ll take pucks off the wall to the slot as well as anyone and has a quick release to complement it.
The guys to watch are the nation’s two top freshmen in T.J. Tynan and Anders Lee. Some have joked that Lee, a high school football star in Minnesota, is probably the best quarterback at Notre Dame, but at 6-2, 215, he is more like a cross between Walter Payton and Earl Campbell. He uses his size well, has the finesse to get through tight areas to create offense and has a bomb of a shot. Tynan is as quick as a cat, can get separation from a defender and is a constant threat to score.
The line of Lee-Riley Sheahan-Billy Maday is versatile and Sheahan has proven this season he can be responsible in his own end and still contribute offensively. Ridderwall-Tynan-Bryan Rust provides Notre Dame with some speed on the flanks, some hands in all three zones and really good hockey sense. Riderwall has proven in his career that he can score big goals and has veteran presence.
In summary, Notre Dame has size on the back line, skill down the middle with good defensive responsibility and a methodical system that allows it to be consistent for 60 minutes whether it is up or down a goal.
Minnesota-Duluth scouting report
When they left St. Paul from the WCHA Final Five, the Bulldogs looked gassed and tired. But they caught a small break in the regionals in that they played two teams that were not very big or very physical. They have an intimidating power play, as Yale found out. Their key there is that the top unit is really good at finding your weakness and it can move it around until it sees the armor crack. If you pressure, they will cycle to avoid your aggressiveness. If you contain, guys like Justin Fontaine and Justin Faulk will work the perimeter and find a lane.
Minnesota-Duluth boasts two really solid lines with Mike Connolly-Jack Connolly-Justin Fontaine and Kyle Schmidt-Travis Oleksuk-J.T. Brown. It also has some mobility and hostility on the back line and is led back there by Faulk, who might have as much poise with the puck as any defenseman in the NCAA.
The top line isn’t big but it is fast and on the power play it is extremely dangerous. Some have said it is the best line in the NCAA. If it isn’t the top line, it is in the picture. Fontaine as a shooter hits the net with regularity and has a great release. Mike Connolly is the playmaker, and Jack Connolly has tremendous speed and covers small areas quickly in pursuit of pucks. Mike is the guy who makes the line go with his creativity and his hands, and he can stick a puck in a tight area pretty well. He also puts pucks in good areas for his linemates to create offense. Some in the WCHA have compared the Connollys to the combo of Marty Sertich and Brett Sterling when they were at Colorado College. That is no small compliment.
The line overall has very good hockey IQ, is very good in the quiet zones and comes to the net with a vengeance. In an era where generating good offense off offensive zone play against big defenses is difficult, these guys can do it, and that makes for a great challenge for the Notre Dame defense.
The second line is also solid with Oleksuk the pivot. He has good size and can get to the net, and has a good stick and an underrated game overall. Brown is an undersized forward who returns to the Twin Cities, where his dad played football for the Vikings. While lacking in size, he has a great ability to change gears and solid stick skills. He does well controlling pucks under fire. Schmidt is pretty good all around and gives the line an added dimension of overall depth of skill.
Their defense is mobile, led by Faulk. He is perfectly paired with a defensive-minded guy in Mike Montgomery, who is a converted forward with dependable hands. He’s a big, strong kid with good range.
The goaltender is a good watch and somewhat unique in this day of the blocker goalie. Like Hunwick of Michigan, Kenny Reiter is smaller than your prototypical goalie at 5-foot-10, 170 pounds, and has some Mike Richter in him. Shooters look at him as a small goalie who probably wants to go down on every shot, but he has the ability to outwait you and stay on his feet for high shots. Athletic and composed, he possesses good mechanics and does well covering the net. He makes you beat him with a shot around him and doesn’t give you much through the body.
Minnesota-Duluth is a patient team, a disciplined team and a team that rarely gets outnumbered in any area. The best description is that it has hockey players, not kids who play hockey, and any of you who have been around this game a while know the difference. They play for each other and play as a team.
Like North Dakota, and most likely because both he and Dave Hakstol come from the same North Dakota background, coach Scott Sandelin has his team playing a fast, in-your-face game, especially against the rush. They don’t back up much, get pressure and gap well. It is hard to get pucks past them and unless you attack with speed and overload the rush they are tough to get pucks behind.
Probably the only people that thought they would get to the Frozen Four was the Bulldogs themselves, although I did not think either team they saw in the regional had the lineup to match up with them at this point in the season.
Minnesota-Duluth can be a tough matchup for anyone because of how well it plays as a team and it hits a team in Notre Dame that is very similar. This is a game that could be determined by who makes one more good play, who capitalizes on one big mistake, or how much PP time Minnesota-Duluth can create.
Enjoy the games. Hopefully this helped you get ready for them.